"Society is nothing more than what you do and say every day. When you speak, society speaks. When you change, society changes."
Bush, Sr., said, "He was a courageous, good man." Clinton said, "The contributions he made to our lives and the life of this nation will thunder on long after he is gone." Bob Dole called him "a pioneer in the disability field who never tired working to improve the lives of those with severe disabilities." Tom Harkin said he was "the Abraham Lincoln of the disability community." And Ed Kennedy said, "He was one of our country’s greatest warriors in the fight for civil rights for people with disabilities."
If he were alive today, Justin Dart, Jr. would turn 76 and he'd probably be remembering the anniversary of Katrina by speaking publically somewhere on how disabled people were disproportionately the victims of the government's lack of planning and slow response. Or he'd be speaking about the thousands of innocent civilian casualties in Iraq and Lebanon. Or he'd be campaigning from state to state for some political candidate who supports universal health care as a national priority.
Dart died in June of 2002, but he's was a disability rights leader, a father of the ADA, and a rolemodel for anyone wanting to change the world. I won't repeat his life history when others have written so well about it here and here. But I will include some inspiring excerpts.
New Mobility reported Dart's recollections of the lifechanging 1966 visit to a Saigon, Vietnam "institution" for children with polio, the virus that also left him using a wheelchair from age 18:
"The floor of the whole place was covered with children ages 4 to 10, with bloated stomachs and matchstick limbs," he recalls. "They were starving to death and lying in their own urine and feces, covered with flies. A little girl reached up to me and looked into my eyes. I automatically took her hand and my photographer took pictures. She had the most serene look I have ever seen--and it penetrated to the deepest part of my consciousness. I thought, here is a person almost dead, and she knows it. She's reaching out for God and has found a counterfeit saint doing a photo op. I was engulfed by the devastating perception that I have met real evil, and I am a part of it. The way I'm living and dealing with disability is killing this little girl. I'm going to go to my hotel, drink Johnnie Walker, eat a steak, and this picture is going to be in some magazine. I told [my fiancée] Yoshiko, 'We cannot go on as we have been. Our lives have got to mean something. We have got to get into this fight and stop this evil.' "A lifelong Republican serving in various government positions under Reagan and Bush, Sr., Dart abandoned the party in 1994 when it pushed to amend or repeal the ADA and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). In 1996, he publicly campaigned for Clinton, against fellow Texan Bush, Jr., the son of the man he sat next to as the ADA was signed into law. He spoke at the DNC and visited all 50 states before the election, speaking for disability issues and supporting Clinton.
His health failed in 1997 and he worked from home after that, but even in his last days he worked to empower disabled people, sending out this last statement:
"The days of dying carry a special responsibility. There is a great potential to communicate values in a uniquely powerful way—the person who dies demonstrating for civil rights. Let my final actions thunder of love, solidarity, protest—of empowerment.Unsurprisingly, his trademark boots and cowboy hat still provide inspiration and empowerment at disability rights events.
"I adamantly protest the richest culture in the history of the world, a culture which has the obvious potential to create a golden age of science and democracy dedicated to maximizing the quality of life of every person, but which still squanders the majority of its human and physical capital on modern versions of primitive symbols of power and prestige. I adamantly protest the richest culture in the history of the world which still incarcerates millions of humans with and without disabilities in barbaric institutions, backrooms and worse, windowless cells of oppressive perceptions, for the lack of the most elementary empowerment supports."I call for solidarity among all who love justice , all who love life, to create a revolution that will empower every single human being to govern his or her life, to govern the society and to be fully productive of life quality for self and for all. I do so love all the patriots of this and every nation who have fought and sacrificed to bring us to the threshold of this beautiful human dream. I do so love America the beautiful and our wild, creative, beautiful people. I do so love you, my beautiful colleagues in the disability and civil rights movement."